Conor Knighton’s Country Roads Led Him To CBS, National Parks Journey And Book
Conor Knighton is an Emmy Award-winning CBS Sunday Morning Correspondent. He's also a Charleston, West Virginia native who spent a year on the road visiting every national park in the country.
Knighton, who wrote a book about his journey titled "Leave Only Footprints," spoke with Eric Douglas about his epic trip and how growing up in West Virginia influenced what he saw.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: One thing that really intrigued me about this book, Leave Only Footprints, was — probably on the second page — you were talking about your West Virginia roots and comparing that to some of the adventures you were setting out on? How did that play into your excursion out to visit all of the national parks in the country?
Knighton: It's so easy to trace my love of nature back to West Virginia. I grew up with so many different hiking opportunities right out my front door, whether that was Kanawha State Forest or a trip to Watoga, we spent a lot of weekends camping. It's just a beautiful state. And it continues to be a type of landscape that I appreciate — maybe even more now that I've seen so many other places.
Douglas: So tell me why you wanted to take this journey, why it was important for you to see all the national parks in the country.
Knighton: I saw a news article at the end of 2015 about the upcoming centennial of the National Park Service. This journey took place over the course of 2016. At the time, I was freelancing for CBS Sunday Morning, and I thought, ‘Well, hey, that's something we might do a story on.” Before I sent that email, I ended up completely revising my pitch to a whole series of stories on all of the parks. We could find the same types of stories about food and family and art and architecture that would be at home on any episode of Sunday Morning, and just happened to take place in the parks. So I outlined this, looking back, very outlandish pitch that my boss said yes to. But he rightfully decided that we should only do some of the parks for the show.
At the time, there were 59 national parks. We decided to do 20 or so for the broadcast. But then I just got really excited about the idea of trying to tackle them all. And so it was at that point that I decided to give up my place in LA, put my stuff into storage, sell most of the rest, and then hit the road and spend the entire year living full time on the road.
Douglas: One of the stories in the book that stands out for me is the Hot Springs story.
Knighton: When you hear ‘national park,’ you think of a place like Yellowstone or Yosemite. And so when you roll up to Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, it's in the middle of a city. There's a few trails out in the hills that you can hike, but that is a park that was protected for its history -- for these historic bath houses. And those all exist because of the water. There was this belief back when that area was protected, that the healing powers of that spring water could cure everything from syphilis to polio. We have since learned that penicillin is maybe better medicine than water.
Douglas: What was the process for pulling the book project together? Did you take notes along the way?
Knighton: I wish I had taken better notes. I did take some because and in the back of my mind, I thought that maybe it's a book one day, but I was just too embarrassed to admit that to anyone else. I didn't know how I was gonna finish this journey. For all I knew I was gonna break my legs in Glacier National Park and that would have been the end of it.
At the conclusion of the journey, I finally sat down and started looking at all that together and almost felt like I was solving a crime where I would have threads and note cards all up on the walls. The potential downside is you've set up an expectation that you're gonna hear about all of the parks. So I wanted to make sure I at least featured every park with some getting more attention than others.
Douglas: Were there any of the parks that were a surprise to you?
Knighton: So many of them. And actually what convinced me to take on this project was when I looked down the list of the parks, I was surprised how many I'd never even heard of. I mean, everyone knows the Everglades and Yosemite and Yellowstone. But Great Sand Dunes in Colorado? I had never heard of that park before. Most of the Alaskan ones, there were at least half that didn't even register.
For the broadcast for the Sunday Morning side of things, those were the ones I tended to focus on. Just mentioning the fact that there is a national park in American Samoa, that's news to a lot of people. It was news to me. And so that was unbelievably memorable.
Douglas: Can you name one of those? One that stood out?
Knighton: I think Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado is, from a scenery perspective, very memorable. It is an unexpected park where it looks like the Sahara Desert has been transposed on to the Rocky Mountains. It is an incongruous mashup that just doesn't compute when you see it for the first time, because it's just a massive dune field in the midst of the Rocky Mountains. It's also one of the quietest places on earth. That ended up becoming a story that I tell in the book all about the importance of quiet.
Douglas: What was it like when you pitched this project to CBS?
Knighton: I was untested. I'd worked in TV for a decade at that point, and in some form or another for Sunday Morning for four years. But this really was a commitment on their part to believing in me. I produced all these segments on my own while I was traveling, and working remotely before that was a thing that everybody was doing. At the time, I would make a segment, send back the footage via FedEx, interact with the editor through Vimeo links. That was new for our show. So that was a bit of a leap of faith on their part that, I think, worked out.
Douglas: You got what 20 or so broadcasts out of it, you got a book out of it.
Knighton: If no one read it and no one watched it, it was a life-changing experience for me. What I got the most out of it was a shift in my own perspective.
The Isle Royale National Park, off the coast of Michigan, is so remote, that it has some of the highest durations of visitation. If you're going there, you're there for days because it's just hard to get to and hard to get back from.
You really have to go far into nature to experience that. I came to treasure that. to have those times with myself, to really unplug and plug more into that natural world.
Knighton’s book “Leave Only Footprints,” is now available in paperback.
This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.